'Fools Rush In': Stories of the Sarajevo Siege
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
By the time the siege of Sarajevo in the Balkans ended a decade ago, it had become the longest blockade of a city in modern times. Over the course of almost four years, Bosnian-Serb forces cut off the city and then trained their guns on it. They shelled Sarajevo, and within its borders, snipers fired at anything that moved.
Mr. BILL CARTER (Writer): It basically was a turkey shoot, you know, just a random killing field for almost four years.
CHADWICK: Writer Bill Carter was in Sarajevo for part of that four years. He got there shortly after his life took a dark turn; the woman he loved died in a car accident. Sarajevo seemed like a good place to grieve. The city was the focal point of a war that evolved from the breakup of the old Yugoslavia. By 1992, Bosnian-Serb forces held all the high positions around Sarajevo, but somehow it seemed to serve their purpose to hold the town hostage rather than capture it.
Mr. CARTER: You know, they would take the guns back a little bit, then they'd bring them forward, then they'd take them back. And these were--the guns I mention here are, like, 151 Howitzers, and they did line the city. It's kind of like a mountain town, like a Boulder in Colorado or something like that, much bigger but it has that look.
CHADWICK: Bill Carter had come to Sarajevo to do humanitarian work with an aid group. They dodged artillery fire trying to deliver food, but it wasn't just big guns. The city was also riddled with sniper fire.
Mr. CARTER: There was an area of town called--Grbavica was the name of it. And that's where the really big snipers were at because they were in apartment buildings 50 meters away from, you know, you.
CHADWICK: The city's being laid siege for a period of years. You have a personal tragedy in your life, the loss of a young woman who you loved very, very deeply. She dies in a car accident, and you wind up in Sarajevo as part of a kind of pilgrimage to reclaim yourself, I think. There's certainly almost a sense in this that you're courting death in some way; you're going to the most dangerous place you can find to undertake a kind of humanitarian mission.
Mr. CARTER: Right. There was the death, then there's grief, which takes you on a ride that you can never predict. And the end of that ride, I was standing on the road in Croatia on my way into Bosnia. It really was--I was really just a vessel on this bizarre journey of grief that landed me there. That said, I wasn't like a sad puss on the side of the road, you know. Well, you would never have known it by looking at me. I was also very alive. Grief is a strange animal, you know. You can be very, very alive in grief because you kind of don't care if you die.
CHADWICK: And you're going to a city that's consumed with grief but also with life, with living with grief, and the emphasis is on living. You hook up with this group of humanitarian clowns, really. They called themselves the Serious Road Trip. It was an independent group of people who were delivering food into Sarajevo, which was cut off.
Mr. CARTER: It really was a maverick NGO, non-governmental organization, and they would take the food that nobody else would take. Their mission was to deliver it, really, dressed as clowns, to entertain and to bring laughter. You know, there was a lot of people taking care of the food or basic needs, but everybody seems to forget that in these places sometimes they just want to relax or take a breath or laugh or share a story. And that was their mission. I mean, the best way you can describe it is they were like merry pranksters but with a really quite serious focus.
CHADWICK: You wind up in an apartment in Sarajevo up on these towers. You've got food stuck away in a warehouse that you can get to. And you drive around the city trying to figure out who should get the food and how to hand it out, all the while under the guns of these snipers and under mortar and cannon attack.
Mr. CARTER: It was hard to figure out what's going on because you're being shot at but you don't know where from. The war in Sarajevo wasn't like the war you sometimes see in movies. It was a lot of echoes. You just heard echoes, and then you saw a ricochet or you saw a glass break or you saw someone just fall. You never saw the guy shooting that weapon. People would flinch, then some guy would die, you know. It was a very strange experience to run around that city.
CHADWICK: You could hear the gunfire, but you couldn't tell--you never saw the person who was shooting.
Mr. CARTER: Correct. You could literally be walking, and someone 50 feet in front of you just, you know, falls over. That's it, they're dead. And then you realize, `OK, something's wrong. You need to move.'
CHADWICK: You have another job there, something you undertake, a quest maybe, and that's producing a documentary. You make a video documentary which subsequently becomes this award-winning film, "Miss Sarajevo." What did that film come to mean to you?
Mr. CARTER: What it meant to me was giving these people a real voice in a way that they had not had yet because the news and the media focuses on tragedy in little tight bubbles, 30-second spots, but they don't focus on just--let's call them regular people. They just exist--that have jobs that don't have jobs anymore; that have families that have died. And so to give them a voice in this movie in a way that I thought was interesting at least--it meant a lot to me. I think it's meant a lot to the city.
But the fact that it has a life now is crazy. I mean, it's been out for a while, but universities play it, and festivals keep playing it, and it has this life that really doesn't include me anymore. It just keeps going, and it's quite stunning. And I think it's a testimony to the fact that it's not about the war per se or the details per se. That's better left to maybe the news or something. The film and hopefully the book is more about human spirit, of living, of really living--I mean really going for it. And that is timeless. I mean, hopefully we're doing that in our own lives in 20 years. And so I think that's why people find themselves drawn to the movie.
CHADWICK: Writer Bill Carter. His documentary is called "Miss Sarajevo," and his new book about his time there, just published by Penguin, is called "Fools Rush In."
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